In May this year, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Corporation created space travel history by achieving the first “feathered” re-entry of its experimental craft, SpaceShipTwo. Oversize stabilizers mounted on the wingtips rotated upwards by 65°, giving the craft the geometry of a badminton shuttlecock and reducing its speed naturally. At a height of around 30,000 feet, the stabilizers rotated back to their normal configuration and the spacecraft landed normally on a runway at California’s Mojave Spaceport. It really is an engineering marvel, and I’ve included a clip of it here:
According to the press releases, the combination of high drag and low weight keeps the craft’s skin temperature low, rendering unneccessary any additional heat shields or tiling, the partial loss of which led to the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. It not only signalled a revolution in aerospace engineering, but a triumph of private enterprise over government bureacracy, of the genius of one man over a welter of committees and sub-committees. Sir Richard was all over the media in the days following, basking in his company’s glory at every available opportunity.
The man who actually designed and built both SpaceShipTwo and its mother ship, White Knight Two, was less to be seen in the spotlight. Burt Rutan, founder and CEO of aerospace engineering firm Scaled Composites, is about the greatest possible contrast one could imagine to his flamboyant backer. Unobtrusive but driven, Rutan, who studied aeronautical engineering at California Polytechnic before joining the United States Air Force as a flight test engineer, has over the last 45 years produced a string of innovative and sometimes counter-intuitive aircraft designs, including VariEze, the first light plane to employ winglets, and the Rutan Voyager which, in December 1986, piloted by his brother Dick, became the first aircraft to circumnavigate the earth without stopping or refuelling. In 2004, he claimed the $US10 million Ansari X Prize when Scaled Composites, with their revolutionary SpaceShipOne, became the first non-government agency to launch a single manned craft into space twice within a two-week period. Truly, a self-made man.
Branson, by contrast, while he can also claim to be self-made, appears instead to have fashioned a career out of managing the talents of others. Born into privilege, the son of a barrister and grandson of a High Court Justice and Privy Councillor, he dropped out of high school at 16 and began selling records out of the boot of his car. These really were “bootleg” records, having been purchased on the European continent and smuggled into Britain, thus avoiding paying import duties. When he was eventually caught and indicted, the out-of-court settlement with UK Customs and Excise was of a size that necessitated his parents re-mortgaging the Branson family home. Going “straight” thereafter, he opened a chain of bricks-and-mortar record stores under the name Virgin, backing several artists, most notably Mike Oldfield (who at Branson’s studio recorded his magnum opus Tubular Bells), and later the Sex Pistols (whom no mainstream record company at the time would touch).
Branson’s Virgin empire spread in the 1980s and 90s, branching out into travel, television production, condom distribution, computer games, radio, cosmetics, healthcare, railways, airlines, credit cards, film production, biofuels and many others. In the process he has become a billionaire, and is estimated to be the 5th richest person in Great Britain and 254th in the world according to Forbes Magazine’s Rich List.
All this success has come apparently, due to Branson’s entrepreneurial ability, self-confidence, and his “gift of the gab”, rather than any specific ability in making music, producing television, fabricating latex devices, running an airline, and so on. These rôles he invariably delegates to others. It raises an interesting question, one which was most eloquently put the other day by Tayles on the JD blog: the contrast between doers and talkers. Read Tayles’ comment and ask yourself, to which group does Sir Richard Branson belong? The classical free-market capitalist will reply without hesitation, that entrepreneurial skills are essential to open up opportunity for those doers to actually go ahead and do, that is create wealth. The relationship between the entrepreneur, investor and banker provides liquidity, without which the likes of Burt Rutan would never—figuratively, as well as literally—get off the ground. Reading Branson’s story, however, I’m not so sure. It sounds very much to me as if he is in the perpetual habit of riding somebody else’s wave.
Unlike many of his fellow mega-rich tycoons who prefer to remain in the background, Branson’s taste for self-promotion appears to have grown with his wealth. Apart from his invariable selection of high-profile business ventures, Branson has used his fortune to indulge in a variety of media stunts involving “big boys’ toys”. His first attempt at setting a new Atlantic Ocean crossing record in his oversized speedboat Virgin Atlantic Challenger I ended when the vessel capsized in heavy seas and necessitated a high-profile and expensive RAF rescue operation. The following year, he commissioned yet another vessel, Virgin Atlantic Challenger II, this time skippered by a professional sailor, with Branson as passenger; the record was broken, and Branson claimed the plaudits. He has also shown a fondness for travelling in helium balloons. With fellow attention-seeker and billionaire, the late Steve Fossett, together with professional pilot Per Lindstrand, he made a number of highly-publicized but unsuccessful attempts to circumnavigate the globe. Other exploits include a crossing of the English Channel by amphibious car, and an unsuccessful attempt to break the eastbound trans-Atlantic sailing record. Branson in this regard reminds me very much of a comic and aptly-named character created by Paul Hogan in his (locally) famous 1970s television show.
Branson’s evident self-belief, combined with an admitted lack of erudition, has led him to embrace the cause of Global Warming with his typical fervour. He has said in interviews that he was won over to this cause having viewed Al Gore’s masterwork of science, An Inconvenient Truth. Branson, whose actual knowledge of the facts closely parallels Gore’s, shares the ex-Vice President’s sense of shamelessness, amounting to the chutzpah of the true religious hypocrite, on the issue of greenhouse gas emissions. Not only is his own personal carbon footprint many times larger than that of the most profligate ordinary citizen, but like Gore, owns, Canute-like, ostentatious waterfront properties, and is in the habit of jetting about the world whilst lecturing on the necessity for the rest of us to cut back on our own carbon emissions. Most infamously in my own country, he appeared in 2008 before a crowd of credulous students at Bond University on Queensland’s Gold Coast, urging other companies to follow Virgin’s lead on sustainability—before brazenly boarding his waiting helicopter—parked on the university sports oval—and choppering off to his next engagement.
When taken to task about the gigantic carbon emissions arising from his latest Virgin Galactic enterprise, he responded by retaining as “environmental consultant”, and at an exorbitant fee, Australia’s Climate Change Commissioner, Tim Flannery: green sheen for hire.
The contrast with Burt Rutan couldn’t be more stark. Rutan doesn’t tell anyone else how to live their lives. His own life though, is an exemplar to those who would force their environmental beliefs on others. He drives an electric car. His home in the Mojave Desert, which he designed himself, has won several awards, including Pop Science’s 1989 “World’s Most Efficient House”; it is so energy efficient, in fact, that it actually uses less power to cool in summer than it does to heat in winter. Anthony Watts profiled him two years ago on his site. I strongly recommend you read this article on a remarkable man.
He is also sceptical of the theory of Anthropogenic Global Warming. The WUWT article includes a link to an excellent presentation of Rutan’s, (PowerPoint or .pdf) in which he explains that his own interest is not as a “climatologist”, but as one who has spent his life analysing engineering flight test data. He runs through the whole panoply of statistical tricks which have been employed by the IPCC, among others, to create the impression of a trend which, as he demonstrates, is completely at odds with that which emerges from the raw, unadulterated dataset. His words should carry a great deal of weight, and are impossible to be lightly or blithely dismissed; after all, in his field, if he wrongly interprets test results, men will almost certainly die. If, on the other hand, climatologists wrongly interpret measurements, they…
They will claim that more work needs to be done, and will invariably receive an extension of their publicly-funded research grant.
How these two ended up working together is a source of amazement; one, a dedicated professional, unwilling to dictate to others, but determined himself to tread lightly upon the earth. The other, a man of gesture and appearance, who wants to shape the world in his own image, but only if he himself is excused the sacrifices required to do so. A man of substance, and a man of style.
History will remember both, but for very different reasons.